How wonderful it is to see a film about art that treats the creative process as an essential part of the human experience, free of the fetishization of suffering, or the detachment of genius worship. The narrative of Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire centers on the relationship between a painter and her subject, but it examines the miracle and tragedy of human creation of all kinds, including music, storytelling, recreation, and especially love.
Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a portrait artist and art instructor, is commissioned to paint Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) without her knowledge, at the insistence of her countess mother (Valeria Golino). Héloïse is engaged to a man she does not know, and had refused to sit for a previous painter following her sister’s suicide. Marianne is introduced under the guise of a walking companion, stealing glimpses of her features when she can. When the first painting is complete, Héloïse rejects the work as made without true emotion. She then agrees to sit for a new painting while the countess is away, and in this time alone, the hints of attraction boil over. The painting of Héloïse’s portrait becomes a time and space for the two women to express themselves. What was compulsory becomes voluntary, what was technical becomes emotional, and with the burden of expectation removed, they discover new levels of freedom not allowed by their stations in life.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
R, 119 minutes
Violet Crown Cinema
Sciamma’s minimalistic direction brings out dimensions of the story that might have been lost in a more conventional film. The only music is diegetic, coming from a harpsichord, an orchestra, or a group of women around a fire. There is no villain, there are no twists, and no on-screen violence. There is sex, but the eroticism exists in all things: glances and stares, shapes, sounds, and silence. The only struggle is to find the best way to express emotions that have been suffocated, entombed by fear, sadness, past experiences, societal expectation. It is a simple love story told with elegance, sophistication, and masterful craftsmanship.
The creative process is often inadequately captured in film not because it is ineffable, but because it is so tangible. It is a great labor to have a film about an artist that is made with the same attention to detail that its subject demonstrates. Many filmmakers fall victim to the temptation of portraying an artist’s life as a series of anecdotal struggles that culminate in the spark of creation, resulting in a great masterpiece. Artistic inspiration can come from anywhere and might be indescribable, but the act of creation, the form and technique used to create, and the feelings that creation evokes are as foundational to us as the process leading up to it. We don’t memorialize ourselves and our emotions out of vanity. We do it out of necessity.
Local theater listings
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 375 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056.
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213.
Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000.
See it again
The Color Purple
PG-13, 200 minutes
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, February 23